Monday, September 15, 2008

SOORAJ BARJATYA: Music and Melodrama

More involved in distribution than film-making, Sooraj Barjatya has directed only a small handful of films – but several of them were such huge hits that he’s effectively made his mark on Hindi cinema as a director – specifically as a director of a specific type of film – the sentimental, schmaltzy, melodramatic ‘family drama’. Hallmarks of his movies include family celebrations (usually with gorgeous, heart-warming songs) and inter-generational conflict (typically resolved thanks to love, understanding and forgiveness – all done the desi way, of course).

Barjatya’s films always reflect – and even champion – so-called ‘traditional family values’ – values which are often decried as both unrealistic and anachronistic. Several of his films feature ‘arranged marriages’ between characters who, although they have no objections to spending the rest of their lives together, haven’t exactly had the opportunity to make such a life-changing decision with a person of their own choosing, after a reasonable period of discovery. The films also tend to endorse a model of marriage where the girl seems to set aside any aspirations or ambitions she may have had, in order to become the idealized ‘biwi aur bahu’.

In addition, Barjatya often seems to adopt the simplistic view (often seen in Bollywood – and also, by the way, in Nollywood (Nigerian cinema)) that 'Western' values are completely unwholesome and undesirable and worse, are some sort of raging virus out to destroy everything that the Indian family holds dear. This theme pops up in all the Barjatya films I’ve seen – the worst characters are those that try to look and speak ‘Western’ – they are immoral, greedy and uncaring about the needs of others.

I’m not going to weigh in on the debate as to whether there’s anything harmful or misleading in the ‘family values’ model adopted by Barjatya in his films – I think that everyone has a view on that. I will only say that as a lover of Bollywood films, I’ve learned to sift through the messages in various movies and to extract what (if anything) is of value to me, discarding whatever goes against my own worldview. And I will also say that my beliefs, I like to think, are pretty embracing of diverse views, and I sometimes (but by no means always) find that there’s value to be extracted from ideas that may at first go against the grain. And that’s a lot to say from someone who had nothing to say!

Before talking about the Barjatya films I’ve seen so far, I’ll just summarise what I love and (don’t love) about them. I like a formula that works, and his formula works for me – catchy, melodious music + beautiful, charming actors + some conflict + all-conquering love healing all wounds. I like it – it’s simple and it’s fun (for the most part). Let’s break it down.

The music: Barjatya uses music (and lots and lots of it) really well to heighten emotion and tug at those heart-strings, awakening feelings of nostalgia and tenderness. The melodies (usually provided by Raam Laxman) are simple, catchy (really infectious, actually), memorable and even sometimes shamelessly plagiarized (as in ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’). The song picturisations are usually really beautifully done, in my opinion. Schmaltzy and over-the-top as it sometimes is, I think the music is my favourite thing about his films.

The actors: Like every director, Barjatya has his ‘MVPs’ – actors that understand how to effectively capture and demonstrate the family-friendly messages infused through each film. Alok Nath, who’s almost a genius at melodrama in my view, has to be the most valuable Barjatya MVP, but there’s also (among others) the charming Reema Lagoo, Anupam Kher (whom I love), Ajit Vachani, Mohnish Behl, and his favourite ‘hero’, Mr. Salman Khan.

Mr. Barjatya is a bit more adventurous when casting young females, and he sure goes for the gorgeous: Bhagyashree – she of the lamentably underachieved career (‘Maine Pyar Kiya’), Madhuri Dixit and Renuka Shahane (‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!’ – Renuka is another whom I wish had done more), Kareena Kapoor (‘Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon’), Amrita Rao (‘Vivah’), Karisma Kapoor, Tabu and Sonali Bendre (‘Hum Saath Saath Hain’). Barjatya picks beautiful people, and that makes for many beautiful picturisations – from Madhuri and Salman in ‘Joote Dedo’ to Shahid and Amrita in ‘Hamari Shaadi’, to Tabu, Sonali and Lolo in ‘Maiyya Yashoda’, to Bhagyashree and Salman in the Antakshari medley from ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’.

Speaking of great picturisations, India itself is, I believe, a character in Barjatya’s films – the rich culture, the family traditions, the colourful clothing, and the scenic locations spread across the country. All his films that I’ve seen include scenes shot in the beautiful, picturesque, often rural areas of India. That’s another thing I love.

Barjatya is also fond of animals, it seems – from Tuffy the dog in HAHK, who ends up playing a pivotal role in the film, to Handsome the dove in ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’. And he has a distinct affection for the the name 'Prem'!

One thing I do like about Barjatya’s characters is that they all have distinct and different personalities – some are feisty and forward, others shy and reserved; some are plain-speaking, others diplomatic geniuses; some are bubbling with life, others inwardly seething. They are definitely not the most nuanced and complex characters (although I think some of them end up having a lot more substance than you’d at first think), in fact they are usually very broadly-sketched, but I guess I can forgive that within the context of what he does.

The conflict: There is always one – whether created by human weakness (as in ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’) or by bad advice from creepy friends (as in ‘Hum Saath Saath Hain’) or by tragic accident (as in ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!’ and ‘Vivah’). As with real life, the conflict usually comes straight out of nowhere. Unfortunately, sometimes the conflict also comes off a bit contrived and/or unrealistic… but oh well.

All-conquering love: Ah… the all-consuming power of love, be it romantic or filial, able to straighten out every difficulty, obliterate every complication, assuage every human yearning, make people become exactly who the people they love want them to be…. Except, this works only in the movies! It makes for some nice, cathartic emotional resolutions though. It would be nice, I suppose, if a nod was made to the fact that things are never so nicely tied up in real life – but then again, isn’t that why we’ve got the movies?

Now to the Barjatya films I’ve seen so far.

HUM AAPKE HAIN KOUN…!’: I adore this film. It’s my favourite of the films Sooraj Barjatya has directed and just has a very special place in my heart. I wrote just about everything I have to say about it here.

‘HUM SAATH SAATH HAIN’: I’m one of the few people that actually really liked this film. Yes, it’s very saccharine in many places, but I think it had its heart in the right place. I love the songs from it and enjoyed the performances as well as the issues it tackled. I’ve written about it here and here.

‘MAINE PYAR KIYA’: This is a very sweet, charming film about young love. It’s very ‘typical’ of Bollywood romance – rich boy, poor girl, opposition from parents… but it’s very nicely done. A young, likeable Salman Khan and the adorable Bhagyashree play Prem and Suman, two young people who despite their differing backgrounds, find friendship, and later love, when Suman comes to live at Prem’s house (Suman’s father and Prem’s father are old friends). These two made SUCH a lovely couple, and the film-makers captured some really memorable moments with them.

Unfortunately, as the bond between Prem and Suman develops, the bond between their parents is destroyed by Prem’s father’s pride and elitism. Suman’s father’s pride is awakened in turn, and Prem must then convince him (as the Biblical Jacob had to convince Laban) that he is deserving of his daughter. Throw in the attempts of the greedy, Westernised Ranjeet, Seema and Jeevan (played by Ajit Vachani, Pervin Dastur and Mohnish Behl) to snatch away all that Prem and his family hold dear, and our young hero faces quite a challenge. Will he succeed? Anyone who knows Bollywood knows the answer to this question, but it’s still fun to watch.

The best thing about this film for me was the performances – especially by Bhagyashree and Salman, although they’re nicely backed by the rest of the cast. I do so wish Bhagyashree had built on the success of this film – I think she could have had a great career. The songs in this film are also really sweet (‘Dil Deewana’ is pretty, ‘Tum Ladki Ho’ is fun, and ‘Kabutar ja’ is delightful – I enjoyed the rest as well). Some aspects of the script could I could have done without, such as the strangely intense relationship between our lovers’ fathers (especially on Alok Nath’s side) – very amusing, but weird. Also could have done without the big fight at the end. But all told, this is a really, really sweet and charming love story.

‘VIVAH’: Sooraj Barjatya’s most recent hit, a charming courtship story starring Shahid Kapoor and Amrita Rao helped Barjatya regain the credibility he had lost with HSSH and ‘Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon’ (which I haven’t seen). It also sparked criticism from many who felt that its themes were obsolete and its female protagonist annoyingly submissive. While I don’t agree with all of it (I particularly disagree with the notion that Poonam’s shyness automatically makes her a mindless coward), I do have problems with some aspects of this film’s storyline.

Shahid Kapoor plays the sweet, sincere Prem, a young man whose father (played by Anupam Kher) apparently gets up one day, and out of nowhere, decides it’s time for his son to get married. Prem has his doubts, but like a good, obedient son, he meekly goes with his father to meet the selected prospective wife, the lovely Poonam (played by Amrita Rao). After only one brief and one-sided conversation, during which Poonam seems to be afraid to look up at Prem's face, she agrees to marry Prem. There is no discussion about her goals, desires and aspirations until after the decision is made. And even then, the ‘discussion’ (such as it is), almost explicitly subjugates her own future accomplishments to the chief role she will soon have as supportive wife and dutiful daughter-in-law. And through it all, Poonam is quietly acquiescent - and somehow it's a little difficult to tell whether it's because she's doing what's expected of her or because she's doing what she wants.

After this beginning (which, you can probably tell, I found pretty problematic), the bulk of the film is taken up by Poonam and Prem’s sweet season of courtship. I have to say I was won over at this point by the warmth and sincerity of the characters and the way they slowly establish friendship and intimacy.

I thought Shahid and Amrita had great chemistry, and I liked their characters’ mutual respect and the fact that neither was ‘fronting’ - Prem and Poonam were keeping it real. Their relationship takes time to mature, and both of them have to make an effort - I liked that as well. And it was immensely gratifying to eventually discover that Poonam, despite initial appearances, does, wonder of wonders, actually have a pretty resilient backbone and something even more endearing – maturity and wisdom along with a sense of fun.

I really, really enjoyed ‘Vivah’ – I loved the songs, I loved the romance, I loved the way in which it all unfolded, and I just thought that it was really lovely and sweet. But there is no doubt that unfortunately, I also found some aspects of it unacceptable.

I think that this ambivalent note is a really good one on which to end this post. While I like the fact that Barjatya’s films put family values front and centre, while I love the music and the emotion, and the beautiful people and scenery, and the whole formula; there definitely are aspects to that formula that can be difficult.

But I think that I am probably not the only movie buff that comes to this point with a number of films (whether they be products of Bollywood, Hollywood, or Nollywood) and has learnt to deal with it – extracting, as I said earlier, what works for me and pushing aside what doesn’t (of course, there are times when there’s nothing to extract because none of it goes down well).

I am of course conscious that some will use messages in films to continue to legitimate and reiterate (even if only to themselves) ceretain inequitable viewpoints – and even worse, that some more impressionable viewers may possibly find their viewpoints shaped by what they see on their screens… and of course at this point the whole ‘life imitates art imitates life’ circular argument rears its ugly but compelling head.

Phew… I went a bit deeper with this than I planned… funny how I returned to the same point I tried to avoid at the beginning of this piece. Time to summarise. I remain a fan of Barjatya’s work as a director – and even if he never directs another film, I will always be glad he made the films he did (especially HAHK – I love it so much).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

'SATYAKAM' - Dharmendra's Best Performance?

I’ve wanted to watch ‘Satyakam’ for ages… about 2 years now actually, ever since I first read a review that described Dharmendra’s performance in it as his career best. It wasn’t easy, but I finally got my hands on it. My next post was supposed to be about something light-hearted and frivolous…‘Satyakam’ is anything but. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not exactly a depressing, dark film – but it definitely made me pause and reflect, which I think was what Hrishikesh Mukherjee and his team intended.

Speaking of the late Hrishikesh Mukherjee, I am a huge fan of his work – he’s my favourite Hindi film director and I’ve loved all the films he directed (that I’ve seen so far). But ‘Satyakam’ was totally different from the others I’ve seen, which is interesting as it’s also the earliest one (1969) that I’ve seen. It’s not fun and light-hearted (like ‘Chupke Chupke’ or ‘Gol Maal’), and it doesn’t quite have the sweetness of a ‘Guddi’ or ‘Bawarchi’ or the heart-tugging (but nicely done) melodrama of a ‘Mili’ or ‘Abhimaan’. ‘Satyakam’ is measured and restrained. It unwinds slowly (perhaps a little too slowly at the beginning, actually) and its tone is reflective. I love the fact that it raises more questions that it answers, leaving its audience to ponder on the issues for itself.

Where is the balance (if there is one) between being ‘yourself’ and adapting to the harsh realities of your environment? How much of your true self is dictated by your genes and the circumstances of your birth, and how much is dictated by life experience and the pressures of everyday living? Are values important enough to live or die for? Does dogmatism always either devour itself or collapse into hypocrisy? Can one man really take on the system? Must there be a sacrifice of values for the sake of ‘greater good’ (however defined)? Where is the balance between personal honour and emotional truth? Is there even such a thing as truth, or is it really all about shades of grey and personal judgment?

Speaking of judgment, is it really possible to ‘temper justice with mercy’? What dictates the true value of a life? Where is the line between the protection and preservation of self and family interests on the one hand and the service of higher interests on the other? These are just some of the questions that ‘Satyakam’ raises. It doesn’t answer them all, but in raising them, it tells a compelling story of one man’s devotion to truth, the people he meets along his path, and how ‘successful’ he is at being the man he aspires to be. There is also an interesting subtext that I feel was a bit under-developed (or maybe I was just rather inadequate at unpacking it) – the relationship between Satyakam’s story and the story of a young and newly independent India, finding its feet, making its choices, navigating the constant socio-moral seesaw between concession and right, and arriving at its own destiny.

Satyapriya (played by Dharmendra) comes from a long line of honest, upright, truth-tellers. He has been raised in the long-held family traditions of honour, truth and respectability by his beloved and noble grandfather (played by the brilliant Ashok Kumar). While at college, he meets and becomes firm friends with Naren (played by Sanjeev Kumar in one of his first film roles).

After college, the friends separate and Satyapriya (‘Sat’) takes his first job as a project engineer. He quickly comes face-to-face with corrupt, self-serving, dishonest men. From Day 1, he firmly and boldly takes a stand against every practice that goes against his values, and of course, there are consequences. While dealing with this, he also meets the beautiful but sad Ranjana, a young woman cast out of honourable society due to the circumstances of her birth and destined (it seems) to become the plaything of wealthy men. Even her own guardian has no quibble with subjecting her to this future – as far as he’s concerned, she can hope for nothing better with her history, and life in ‘service’ to a rich, lecherous will at least fetch a handsome income.

When Satya becomes familiar with her circumstances, he wants to help but is torn between the demands of heritage and reputation, and the need to protect a helpless woman who cares for him (and who he comes to care for). In many ways, this proves to be a watershed moment in his life. What does Sat choose to do? How does his decision affect his relationships and his future? How does he come to terms with the fact that he will always walk alone? How does his fierce, black-or-white brand of personal integrity hold up against the challenges of his future? Does he find peace and personal fulfillment in the life he has chosen? Well, you'll have to watch this film and find out for yourself.

Although I said earlier that ‘Satyakam’ isn’t like any of the other Mukherjee films I’ve seen, it does have some of his hallmarks. As always, he is masterful at setting up moments and scenes that are so poignant and real that they stay with you long after the film is over. The film has the grace of his other films (but is less formulaic and more multi-dimensional than the others I’ve seen). I always love how Hrishikesh Mukherjee could capture something special and intimate in the most seemingly mundane, simple things. Another thing I love about ‘Satyakam’ is the fact that, with its subject matter, it could very easily have degenerated into an over-simplified preach-fest, with Satya hitting us over the head with melodramatic railings on the value of honour; but instead it’s restrained, dignified, and rich with subtext. I love that.

The cast of ‘Satyakam’ features some of Mukherjee’s ‘favourites’: David, Asrani, Ashok Kumar. Then of course, there’s the core cast: Dharam, Sharmila and Sanjeev. The choice of Dharmendra for this role, to my mind, must have gone across the grain – the role of Satya is no simplistic, hackneyed ‘handsome hero’ part – it requires real acting to capture the complex situation and emotions of this character – but Dharam does a bang-up job of it. He really is ‘Sat’ – he reflects the inner resolve and grapplings of his character beautifully and with great restraint, while also balancing this out with Sat’s charm, humanity, simplicity and honesty. It’s a lovely performance.

The rest of the cast is excellent as well – Ashok Kumar is fantastic as usual in his small (but pivotal) role, especially in the film’s final scenes, a young Sanjeev Kumar is simply brilliant as the sweet Naren – he perfectly embodies the ‘everyman’ that his character is – I loved how wonderfully he brought to life the love, and most importantly, the respect, that has for Sat.

Sharmila Tagore is also excellent as Ranjana – although I felt that her character wasn’t given sufficient dimension until much later in the film, she uses her acting chops effectively to keep the character from becoming a boring caricature, and when she does gets some ‘meat’ later in the film, she goes for it and really makes her character memorable.

Memorable... that’s the word I would use to describe ‘Satyakam’. When I had finished watching it, I felt like I had been put through the wringer. I felt like I had felt what each of the main characters had felt… I was saddened, but also uplifted. And most of all, watching this film was more than just a pleasant way to spend two evenings. That doesn’t happen very often.

And finally, you may be wondering, do I agree with the pundits who consider this to be my dear Dharam’s best performance? Well, it’s certainly the best I’ve seen so far. It doesn’t have any of the stylish, ultra-cool, Dharam-trademarks that I’ve liked so much in other films of his I’ve seen, but what it does have is deeper and more powerful, and makes me respect him more than I ever have (you gotta excuse a fangirl her schmaltz!)

Up next… a Director’s Round-up (been ages since I did one) on the undisputed king of ‘traditional family values’: Sooraj Barjatya.